Baseless Claims of Voter Fraud Whip Tea Partiers into a Paranoid Frenzy

This Election Day, thousands of predominantly white and head-stompingly angry Tea Partiers will travel to polling places in minority communities and near colleges to engage in classic voter intimidation tactics: get in the faces of potential voters, photograph them as they wait in line, and challenge their eligibility to cast ballots.

Tea Partiers are being stirred into a frenzy of tribal paranoia by a well-orchestrated right-wing campaign that’s putting the fear of massive voter fraud into the hearts of many conservatives. It’s a wholly unfounded fear, and one based on dangerous demagoguery.

A GOP candidate in Arizona this week accused Democrats of busing thousands of unauthorized immigrants to game the vote, a charge he said was based on “rumors” he’d heard. Sheriff Joe Arpaio responded by sending an email titled "6 Days to STOP Illegals from Stealing the Election!" to his 800,000 supporters. The email, according to the Tucson Sentinel, “is basically a diatribe against suspected ‘illegal alien’ voter fraud in the 2010 elections." In Minnesota, conservative groups are airing ads offering rewards for anyone blowing the whistle on voter fraud, and Fox News has set up a 24-hour hotline to drop a dime on any dead people or Mexicans whom Fox viewers might catch in the act of voting.  

Allegations of massive voter fraud are hardly new. Every serious analysis has concluded that voter fraud is a non-issue, a charge fabricated on the back of a very small number of legitimate cases. According to a new report by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, “There have been a handful of substantiated cases of individual ineligible voters attempting to defraud the election system. But by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.”

The researchers conclude that the reason the cries of "voter fraud" are baseless is practical. “Fraud by individual voters is a singularly foolish and ineffective way to attempt to win an election,” they write. “Each act of voter fraud in connection with a federal election risks five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, in addition to any state penalties. In return, it yields at most one incremental vote. That single extra vote is simply not worth the price.”

The Brannan Center adds that most of the “evidence” of voter fraud offered by conservatives only shows more pedestrian problems voters might face -- clerical errors, typos, etc. The charge is often backed by two studies put out by a now-defunct conservative group in 2005-2006, and three oft-cited newspaper articles over the past 10 years.

As Paul Demko wrote for Politics in Minnesota:

According to a study by Lorraine Minnite, a professor at Columbia University and the author of The Myth of Voter Fraud, there were just 26 federal convictions for voter fraud in the entire United States between 2002 and 2005. These included five individuals who could not vote because of felony convictions, 14 non-citizens, and five who voted twice in the same election.

“It followed a concerted effort by the Justice Department to go after fraud,” said Minnite of the study. “Here you had the Justice Department looking into federal elections — looking, looking, looking - and that’s what they come up with.”

So far, election officials across the country have been shooting down the myth, saying that claims of widespread vote fraud are unfounded and “irresponsible.” “We have not had a single complaint filed into my office or the FBI office regarding many of the claims that we’re hearing most strenuously from the public about,” Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller told reporters. Yuma, Arizona’s NBC affiliate reported that the Yuma County Recorder's Office “is refuting voter fraud claims by the Arizona Republican Party.” The Country Recorder added that “the party's accusations about voter fraud are unfounded and based on opinion rather than fact.”

While progressives have focused on the racial aspect to the specious claims, they’re part of a larger and perhaps more troubling narrative on the Right which holds that center-left politics are illegitimate by definition, which leads to a rejection of the system when Democrats come to power. Whether expressed in the Clinton wars of the 1990s, by today’s “Birthers,” who claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, or “tenthers” who insist that red states have the right to reject all social welfare legislation, the notion that Democrats’ ideas are beyond the pale and they can only gain power through chicanery is a central belief among “backlash” conservatives.

Those stoking these fears are playing a dangerous game, however. Nate Silver gives the Democrats a 16-percent chance of holding the House. But even if GOP gains turn out to be simply less than many conservatives are anticipating, a lot of right-wingers are going to believe the results are invalid. What they will do remains to be seen, but we can only hope they don’t turn to what Nevada senate candidate Sharron Angle referred to as their “Second Amendment remedies.”


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